Over the past month several articles have been published concerning the perceived position of “the left,” or some leftists, on the question of defense of the current Iranian regime, presumably on the grounds of anti-imperialism.
These five articles were especially critical of “leftists” for failing to support the Iranian opposition and/or defending the Iranian regime on anti-imperialist grounds:
- Hamid Dabashi: Left is wrong on Iran | Al-Ahram Weekly | Opinion |
- Reese Erlich: Iran and Leftist Confusion | CommonDreams.org
- Saeed Rahnema: The Tragedy of the Left’s Discourse on Iran | ZNet
- Slavoj Zizek: Will the Cat Above the Precipice Fall Down?
- The Ruh of Brown Folks: Iran and “Anti-Imperialism”
These six articles are critical of the critiques on numerous grounds:
- As’ad Abu Khalil: The Angry Arab News Service/وكالة أنباء العربي الغاضب: Hamid Dabashi’s attack on my person
- Max Forte: Dabashi is Wrong on the Left| Open Anthropology
- Jeremy Hammond: Dabashi is wrong on ‘the left’ | Between the Lines
- Jeremy Hammond: Wall Street Journal Calls Me a “Lefty for Ahmadinejad” | Between the Lines
- Jeremy Hammond: Reese Erlich Responds to FPJ on Iran Election Article | Between the Lines
- Max Ajl: Between ‘Social Fact’ and Fiction | P U L S E
As often happens in the heat of debate, the “really big” assumptions behind certain perceptions remain unquestioned. I believe that these are some that need to be addressed before the debate can continue fruitfully:
- When writers use the term “left” what exactly do they mean?
- Are all leftists anti-imperialist?
- Are all anti-imperialists leftist?
- What theory, or theories, of imperialism are at work here in order for us to know what writers mean by imperialism, and for judging the basis on which Iran’s current regime is anti-imperialist?
Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.
39 thoughts on “Links: Debates on Iran and Leftist Politics”
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Jeremy R. Hammond
Great questions. Take (1). In every example above (Erlich, Dabashi, Taranto), I was included on “the left”. I have absolutely no idea what that’s supposed to mean. I’m conservative, actually.
(2). No. Take Obama. He’s a staunch defender of American imperialism.
(3). No. Take Ron Paul.
(4). I think the dictionary definition suffices for imperialism: the policy, practice, or advocacy of extending the power and dominion of a nation especially by direct territorial acquisitions or by gaining indirect control over the political or economic life of other areas ; broadly : the extension or imposition of power, authority, or influence.
As for (2) all leftists are anti-imperialist. Obama is not a leftist. I’m very much as big-camp kind of guy, but if you think you can run around invading other countries, you’re not e leftist, period. Lines must be drawn.
Self-identified leftists may believe differently, but I see little reason to accept their self-identifications.
“if you think you can run around invading other countries, you’re not e leftist, period. Lines must be drawn. Self-identified leftists may believe differently, but I see little reason to accept their self-identifications.”
Right, I forgot about the TNR crowd and the dimwits at Dissent.
Wait–was that who you were talking about?
It’s cute to anonymously post Wikipedia entries detailing logical fallacies, maybe a bit harder to say something interesting.
Jeremy R. Hammond
So here you’re defining left as “anti-war”. But that leaves no room at least in American discourse for people on the right who are also anti-war.
I explicitly wrote that I wasn’t redefining left to mean anti-war. The set [anti-war] contains [the other poster is claiming, substantially overlaps with, although he can’t cite examples] the set lefists; they’re not the same.
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Jeremy R. Hammond
But the logical corollary of that, Max, is that, if no leftists are imperialists, then therefore all imperialists are rightists. But that goes to my point #3 above. I don’t think either conservatives or liberals hold a monopoly on being for American empire.
The terms “left” and “right” have become virtually meaningless the way they are used (take Dabashi calling me a leftist). Here’s what I mean:
When I talk about “conservative”, I mean a belief in small government, that government should play an unobtrusive and uncoercive role in people’s lives, such as by non-interference in free trade and private industry, etc.
When I talk about “liberal”, I mean a belief that the government should play a larger role in people’s lives, such as through social welfare programs and nationalized industries, etc.
Take the so-called “neo-cons”. They were anything but conservative. They were extremely liberal, and come from a liberal tradition. They were also for American empire.
Classically, it’s actually conservatives favoring smaller and less intrusive government that would be less prone to imperialism. So I think saying no leftist is an imperialist is saying something about what it means to be “on the left” that, under strict classical definitions, doesn’t really apply.
Ahh but Jeremy, you are equating liberal with leftist. I don’t think I have much in common with most liberals and think most of them would despise me and my politics–a conversation is almost literally impossible because apoplexy results.
“I don’t think either conservatives or liberals hold a monopoly on being for American empire.”
True. But I think anyone who is for empire is not a leftist–they are a rightist. Of course, this does not mean that all rightists are for empire, and if they are not, I am happy to make common cause with them, although obviously our visions for the world are or would be substantially different. Still, I am totally willing to say: if you’re for imperialism, we are not on the same team.
“When I talk about “liberal”, I mean a belief that the government should play a larger role in people’s lives, such as through social welfare programs and nationalized industries, etc.”
“Classically, it’s actually conservatives favoring smaller and less intrusive government that would be less prone to imperialism. So I think saying no leftist is an imperialist is saying something about what it means to be “on the left” that, under strict classical definitions, doesn’t really apply”
Well, I think that if you read through a different leftist tradition–one that I consider “leftist”–it does apply. Liberals have supported American wars for decades. Even the Nation magazine, which pushes liberalism to its limits, ran pieces supporting the war in Afghanistan, and some of its columnists supported the war in Kosovo. The desire to use state power is too much of a temptation to some. Independent radicals, Marxists, socialists, anarchists, syndicalists, radical ecologists–that is what I think of when I hear the word “leftist.”
As for Dabashi, the man is–this is appraisal and not invective–a fool. I wouldn’t worry about what he says.
I agree, the terms seem to hide more than they reveal, or cloud more than they explain. For example, your description of “conservative”, at least the part about “a belief in small government, that government should play an unobtrusive and uncoercive role in people’s lives” might describe the belief of many anarchists, and it is my belief too. Like the U.S., we have a federal system in Canada, and I often wish that, to begin with, the Federal Government would just limit itself to foreign representation and defense in the strictest possible meaning of the term (and I mean that Canada has never fought a defensive war — we have either sent troops abroad, or used them at home, against Mohawk protesters in Quebec, and deployed in Quebec previously during the so-called “FLQ crisis”). Otherwise, I would prefer that the federal government not exist at all.
You are right as well about the neo-cons, which is why I have been dismayed by those who think that a “liberal” Obama administration would be almost automatically opposed to the neo-con agenda, which it certainly is not when it comes to foreign policy.
My question about theories of imperialism involves a lot of difficulty. The definition you employed would probably be most widely understood and agreed upon. But what about theories that posit imperialism as a permanent feature of capitalism? For example, those who will argue that capitalist competition not only tends to result in monopolies, but that the over accumulation of capital requires that capital either find new places to be deployed (or be destroyed) less it suffers a loss of value. In that case if conservatives are capitalists, then at some point they need to become imperialists in order for capital to survive — if you accept this line of theoretical thought.
Some might say: but what about Switzerland? It isn’t imperialist. Which country has Switzerland invaded? The answer to that would tie in with the above, arguing that Switzerland need not engage in direct imperialism itself, because imperialism is a property of the system as a whole, and Swiss capitalists function within that system, and need not become a military hegemon to make room for Swiss capital investment overseas. There are a few steps missing here of course.
The argument that leftists can never be imperialist is a bit ambiguous for me. Afghanistan was invaded by the USSR, assuming we can call that leftist (most would). Some, such as Leninists, will not see imperialism where there is no extraction of capital from the imperialized entity. So by definition, Afghanistan, which represented a net capital loss for the USSR, was not the target of a Soviet “imperialism”. Alright, let’s say we agree. But then one could not also argue that Afghanistan was free of Soviet domination, intervention, manipulation, control, etc.
It seems that we are all on safer ground if we say we oppose foreign intervention, in part because it allows us to sidestep the debates about what is “imperialism,” and in part because whatever definition or theory of imperialism one uses, opposing foreign intervention will mean inevitably and necessarily opposing imperialism (whatever that is).
One, I don’t accept that the USSR was a “socialist” or “leftist” entity. This gets into definitional difficulties–to what extent is Cuba then “leftist,” etc. and why if the USSR was not? I can’t defend my point with the level of precision I’d like, but rather inchoately, the system tends toward egalitarianism at least on an economic level and should thus be defended.
I think the forced labor, the lack of basic freedoms, the repression, the invasion of Afghanistan, that characterized the USSR make it not leftist. Some will disagree, and that’s fine, and I’ll work with them, too, since it’s what we do in our own societies that makes us leftists or not.
Two, “It seems that we are all on safer ground if we say we oppose foreign intervention, in part because it allows us to sidestep the debates about what is ‘imperialism.'” Here it’s important to pin down what we mean by foreign intervention; monetary and military “intervention” at least in the literal sense aren’t necessarily problematic–the MST receives money from NGOs and Canadian businessmen, those monies are clearly qualitatively different than, say, NED funds spent in Bolivia and Venezuela. In the case of military intervention, speaking, again, literally, the I’d defend the Cuban interventions in Africa (if you haven’t read Piero Gleijeses’s Conflicting Missions you absolutely should.
So it’s important to be careful in defining terms.
Jeremy R. Hammond
I might be able to be persuaded, but I don’t accept the argument that imperialism is a permanent feature of capitalism. I’m really not familiar with it. My guess, though, is this stems from a misunderstanding about what capitalism actually is. People look at the American system and say, see, America is capitalist! America is also imperialist! Therefore capitalism leads to imperialism. But the U.S. isn’t really a very good model for capitalism. There’s an enormous amount of government interference in the market.
As for U.S. corporations exploiting third world nations and lax labor and environmental laws overseas, I propose a simple fix — If a corporation wants to be licensed by the U.S., it needs to obey U.S. laws WHEREVER it operates. Legal jurisdiction might not extend to other countries (rightly not), but it certainly extends to the license to operate itself, and all that need happen is for that to be a term businesses agree to to become incorporated. If corporations don’t like that, well, they can go get their license to operate from China, or wherever.
“Foreign intervention” is probably better than “imperialism” in other respects, too. A lot of people look at the U.S. and say, we’re not an empire. And, well, no, we’re not, in the classical sense of empires past (Rome, Great Britain, etc.). imperialism has evolved and taken on a new form, and this leads to misunderstandings about the language. What is an empire? Does the U.S. model fit? These things are debatable, based on definitions. But there’s far less ambiguity about what “foreign intervention” means.
Thanks for the replies, and so quick too!
Max, I certainly sympathize with your argument, in fact it’s been the one I have adopted with the greatest frequency. I am causing some confusion by mixing what I think “people” will “popularly” understand by a concept, and what I understand, and what other specialists understand, so I end up creating mixed messages with two or three different perspectives clashing.
I know the Gleijeses book from a while back, and I am also very sympathetic to what Cuba did in Angola and against South Africa, tremendous really. But was it “foreign intervention” if it was invited? I know that some will grimace: many invasions come with a so-called “local invitation” (sometimes produced after the fact by the appropriate puppet), but even so it’s not as if Cuba “invaded Angola” and sought to control and dominate Angola. So is it right to use that as an example of “foreign intervention”?
Jeremy, I think your approach will generate a whole new debate here, but I certainly like your idea of licensing corporations that have operations overseas.
Jeremy R. Hammond
“But was it “foreign intervention” if it was invited?”
Good question. But then it must be pointed out that the government of Afghanistan was begging the USSR to send troops into the country. In fact, the Soviets were extremely reluctant to do so for some time, and the decision to do so was a reversal from that earlier reluctance.
I had forgotten the details of that invitation, to be frank.
Jeremy R. Hammond
The GWU national security archive has a good collection of documents on it:
Which is the problem. I think I recall that the Kosovars welcomed the NATO bombing in 1999, too. I don’t think hard-and-fast rules are applicable, necessarily. There was recently a fascinating debate on the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine (R2P)–many of the videos are available on the internet. Being American, such choices are relatively easy: American interventions have been so uniformly nefarious that it’s easy to criticize all of them and say, No to American Interventions! Not the worst guide, at least until things change around here.
Defining the terms for our purposes may actually be impossible. Obviously I accept in theory certain types of interventions, without acknowledging that the theoretical interventions have ever materialized. And then there are “interventions” at the behest of allies–as in Afghanistan w/ the USSR but also as in Angola w/Cuba. Are those “interventions”? I guess so, but the first one seems illegitimate and the second one, legitimate. Can we formulate the precise principle that distinguishes those two and then even from a third hypothetical borderline case? I doubt it, but the idea of it is what keeps Michael Walzer employed.
As for defining imperialism, I’ve just accessed Sidney Morgenbesser’s provocative essay on the term, which won’t clarify anything but is worth reading:
“If the radical is to get a hearing on these issues, perhaps he should drop the term “imperialism,” and use the term “predatory democracy” suggested by Barrington Moore. But of course the radical, at least the Marxist radical, would resist, for he thinks that he has some good reason for using the term “imperialism,” that he can build a moral case against the United States, if not against all capitalist countries, since he has a theory that such countries must be imperialistic, in his sense. Below I shall remind you of some well-known criticisms of some versions-if not the standard version-of that theory. Here I want to suggest that the moral case just referred to may not be a strong one.
Observe first that the moral case most radical Marxists want to make against capitalist society does not require them to show that such a society is or must be imperialistic. Note further, the case that many of these radicals make is weakened if they cannot show that the type of society they envisage, and whose establishment they support, is itself free of the seeds of imperialism. And of course their case is weakened even more if it depends upon the acceptability of a theory about the interconnection between capitalism and imperialism, and that theory turns out to be debatable. The radical, of course, would not appeal to his theory for moral reasons alone, but would also appeal to it for methodological ones. He is convinced that there is no point in trying to develop a general theory of imperialism, and that moreover there is good reason to believe that we can construct a restricted general theory that will explain the late nineteenth-century cases to which I have alluded. Hence his insistence that the nineteenth-century cases are the paradigm cases, which in turn supports his view that imperialism is a stage of monopoly capitalism, or a stage of exploitation of backward areas by advanced capitalist nations. I will not follow the radical in this, and not only because I am dubious of his theory.
One may be dubious about the chances of a general theory of imperialism, as I am, and also agree that some theory (a) will explain some instances of imperialism, and another theory b will explain some other instances, without insisting that only instances explained by a or instances explained by b are the paradigm cases of imperialism. There may, for example, be one kind of theory or one kind of explanation required to explain Teapot Dome, and another kind of theory or another kind of explanation needed to explain Water- gate, and yet we may or we may not take both of these as paradigm cases of corruption.
[And then the last paragraph]
I presume that the United States is still a dominant imperial power, if not the dominant imperial power. And it needs an ideology. Perhaps one could recommend that it should adopt the simple one of seeking justice. In practice, of course, no power will deny that it is seeking jus- tice; but in practice, too, whenever justice and self-interest do not coincide, self-interest seems to win out. Perhaps the only thing we can expect is for societies to seek justice in their own domain and to treat each other in accordance with the law of nations. But at this moment no one knows how to ensure justice, economic growth, and the needs of military security in one country, much less universally. And perhaps the ultimate absurdity of all this is, as Beverly Woodward has claimed, that we are still committed to the system of world violence. It may be added that when members of a society do not perceive it to be wrong that a few can economically dominate the many in their society, they will not perceive it as wrong that some imperial nations can dominate other nations. Perhaps therein lie certain attitudinal connections be- tween capitalism and imperialism. But, of course, not only here. The attitudinal connections also develop, as we have learned to our regret, under conditions of state socialism.”
Jeremy R. Hammond
>>>And then there are “interventions” at the behest of allies–as in Afghanistan w/ the USSR but also as in Angola w/Cuba. Are those “interventions”? I guess so, but the first one seems illegitimate and the second one, legitimate. Can we formulate the precise principle that distinguishes those two and then even from a third hypothetical borderline case?<<<
When it comes to U.S. interventions, the distinguishing principle is quite simple: "Our" interventions are "good", "Their" interventions are "bad". One would be hard-pressed, I think, to find an alternative characterizing feature that stands the test of time from the historical record.
Jeremy R. Hammond
I missed Max’s earlier reply. There’s clearly a problem with the language here. You object to me equating “left” with “liberal”, but that’s precisely what it means. “Right” conversely means leaning more towards conservatism.
You are using “left” to mean something completely different, apparently, which is a usage I’m not familiar with. Would you define your usage so I can understand what you mean by it?
Sorry Jeremy…to add to the confusion, I forgot to approve an earlier reply from Max to you, which is above (to be more specific, here: https://openanthropology.wordpress.com/2009/08/01/links-debates-on-iran-and-leftist-politics/#comment-6377).
But then again, maybe you were replying to it here? I am not sure now, since I also answer to “Max” and your use of “you” appears below my message.
This is quite funny now…and I hope my removal of comment moderation (brace yourselves for pure filth) will help.
Jeremy R. Hammond
I was replying to the other Max in that instance. ;)
I have open comments at FPJ (no admin moderation). Askimet succeeds in removing pretty much 100% of spam. Occassionally, I have to manually approve a legitimate comment marked as spam, but I don’t think the converse has happened yet. I think you’ll find it won’t be a problem.
That’s why I was writing about definitional problems. I agree that the terms of debate are hopelessly debased. Let me quote from Perry Anderson (glossing Italian philosopher Norberto Bobbio), to perhaps clarify things:
In Bobbio’s characterization, the Left holds the view that the natural inequality of human beings is less than their equality, that most forms of inequality are socially alterable, that few if any are positively functional, and that more and more will prove historically ephemeral. The Right, on the other hand, is committed to the view that the natural inequality of human beings is greater then their equality, that few forms of inequality are alterable, that most are socially functional, and that there is no directionality in their evolution.
Now, without going toodeeply into this (if you have access to the NLR, the exchange is fairly long), leftists differ from liberals in that liberals accept inequality as a natural phenomenon and believe it the task of the state to alleviate it but emphatically not to remedy it. Liberals want a system with fairly deep inequality built into it–just not offensively so. So social welfare programs, good; capitalism, also good. Leftists say no to deep inequality (relative terms that I would be hard-pressed to define satisfactorily) but furthermore usually say no to capitalism. They might accept market socialism, which is actually a variant of capitalism, in some ways, but prevailing forms of state-capitalism are to their eyes acceptable. Furthermore, they desire a strong state. I don’t want any state (at least as they’re currently constituted) and this sentiment is wide-spread amongst people I consider leftists. Is that helpful?
In a nut-shell, perhaps: liberals and leftists both want less inequality, and both might be prepared to use the state to reduce inequality. But liberals believe it right that the system that generates inequality continues. They don’t want “socialism,” or as I see it the de-commodification of the economic system.
Jeremy R. Hammond
I disagree with Bobbio’s usage of the terms as you’ve described them here. This is a departure from the standard usage of “left” as meaning leaning more towards liberalism. As for his assumptions that “leftists” reject inequality and “liberals” accept it, I don’t know what his basis is for that. Without access to NLR maybe I’m just not understanding him correctly, but frankly, on the face of it, I think this is nonsense.
The distinction of “liberals” as accepting of capitalism but “leftists” as not is a false one, also. The confusion here, I would guess, stems from equating “liberal” with the Democratic Party. But one can get more liberal than the Dems. One can be a socialist, for instance, which is presumably what is meant by “leftists” rejecting capitalism. Socialism is an extreme form of liberal political philosophy, in which the state exercises an enormous amount of control and influence over people’s lives, and therefore is a “leftist” paradigm.
Again, you’re using “left” in disconnect with “liberal”, but this is a departure from the traditional usage and understanding of the terms. I propose we stick to their traditional usage to avoid confusion.
I should’ve used italics to clarify what Bobbio’s words were and what mine were. Bobbio was the second paragraph only.
“As for his assumptions that “leftists” reject inequality and “liberals” accept it, I don’t know what his basis is for that. Without access to NLR maybe I’m just not understanding him correctly, but frankly, on the face of it, I think this is nonsense.”
My non-sense, then! I do think liberals accept systemic (as in, resulting from the social system) inequality but think the state should some of alleviate it. I don’t regard this as “leftists”; leftists want the economic system itself to be as systemically egalitarian as possible.
“The distinction of “liberals” as accepting of capitalism but “leftists” as not is a false one, also. The confusion here, I would guess, stems from equating “liberal” with the Democratic Party. But one can get more liberal than the Dems. One can be a socialist, for instance, which is presumably what is meant by “leftists” rejecting capitalism.
The distinction of “liberals” as accepting of capitalism but “leftists” as not is a false one, also. The confusion here, I would guess, stems from equating “liberal” with the Democratic Party. But one can get more liberal than the Dems. One can be a socialist, for instance, which is presumably what is meant by “leftists” rejecting capitalism. Socialism is an extreme form of liberal political philosophy, in which the state exercises an enormous amount of control and influence over people’s lives, and therefore is a “leftist” paradigm.”
But see you’re assuming that I think what’s called “state-socialism” was socialism. I don’t think that. I don’t want a powerful state which exercises an enormous amount of control over people’s lives.
“Again, you’re using “left” in disconnect with “liberal”, but this is a departure from the traditional usage and understanding of the terms. I propose we stick to their traditional usage to avoid confusion.”
I am disconnecting left from liberal, and it may be provoking confusion, but the traditional usage has no space for me or my political views and in fact writes them out of traditional discourse and history, too. So I accept that my terminology may be confusing without accepting that we stick with the traditional usage, which I find obscures more than it illuminates.
Jeremy R. Hammond
Max, what obscures things is when people adopt their own unorthodox usage for words in place of the accepted terminology. Doing so does not illuminate things, but simply adds to the confusion.
We have to be able to agree on what our language means if we’re going to further discussion. Again, I propose sticking to classical definitions and the accepted usage for the words.
If you think that the traditional usage has “no space” for you, join the club! I feel the same way. I generally consider myself a conservative, based entirely upon the classical definition I gave above — which Maximilian indicated he fell under as well.
The whole trouble with these terms in the first place arises out of everyone choosing for themselves what they mean, like when people equate “anti-war” with “liberal” and so forth. This tendency makes the terms practically meaningless.
Either we should stick to the traditional definitions or we should choose new language altogether. But I can’t agree to your definition of what it means to be on the “left” because it’s a contradictory departure from the standard meaning.
Consider that the term “conservative” has been completely debased in contemporary American discourse. But then there is a “tradition” of conservatism that, as you note, you’d wish to identify with: “I mean a belief in small government, that government should play an unobtrusive and uncoercive role in people’s lives, such as by non-interference in free trade and private industry, etc.”
I am willing to accept that definition, while agreeing, as you would, that the mainstream connotation of the word “conservative” does not extend to that definition. It seems reasonable for you to extend the reciprocal courtesy of accepting that the mainstream understanding of the word “leftist” isn’t one that I use, that I use the term “leftist” to signal the people I agree with about the ultimate goals of foreign and domestic policy, and that such goals include non-intervention, radical democracy, the dismantling of capitalism, non-authoritarian socialism, etc.
Mainstream understandings don’t encompass the radical leftist/non-authoritarian communist/libertarian socialist/anarchist traditions, because those traditions simply don’t exist in the mainstream collective imaginary. As my mentor wrote me when I asked what kids at my alma mater thought of anarchism/Kropotkin, “they laugh at anarchism, because they cannot imagine it.”
For example, your description of “conservative”, at least the part about “a belief in small government, that government should play an unobtrusive and uncoercive role in people’s lives” might describe the belief of many anarchists, and it is my belief too.
Now: you think that the proprietor of this blog agrees with you about capitalism, because he wrote, “For example, your description of ‘conservative’, at least the part about ‘a belief in small government, that government should play an unobtrusive and uncoercive role in people’s lives’ might describe the belief of many anarchists, and it is my belief too.”
You glossed that as follows “I generally consider myself a conservative, based entirely upon the classical definition I gave above — which Maximilian indicated he fell under as well.”
But actually I’m pretty sure that he’s an anarchist, e.g. a libertarian socialist of precisely the persuasion I outlined above, or a “leftist.” You wish to make leftist=liberal, but my understanding of the term as it applies to my views excludes some of the people you think are leftists, and this isn’t my idiosyncratic departure but rather a very commonly-held view across great swathes of the Western left. Similarly, I suspect you’d likewise exclude many imperialist “conservatives” from your label of “conservatism,” which departs from “standard” usage.
What’s the difference?
Jeremy R. Hammond
Yes, neither “conservative” nor “liberal” is used in their classical sense by today’s mainstream — which is precisely why I say the words have become virtually meaningless. Hence my suggestion we stick with the classical, traditional definitions and dispense with the rest.
The logical corollary of that is NOT that we should use your definition for “leftist” (courtesy has nothing to do with it – I by no means accept that I am being discourteous by not agreeing to your own private interpretation of the word). Quite the opposite.
It’s reasonable to apply standard, accepted definitions. It’s not reasonable at all to make up our own personal interpretations for words and expect everyone else to use it the same way. This is precisely why these words lend themselves to so much confusion today. This is precisely why I propose we just accept the traditional classical definitions. I see no other way forward.
Yes, under the classical definition, anarchism is an extreme form of conservatism — most certainly!
I did not wish to put words in Maximilian’s mouth when I said he “indicated” that “he fell under” the classical definition of a “conservative”. I gave that definition, and he replied, “it is my belief too”. I believe the pronoun “it” refers to the definition I gave, in which case that later remark of mine was entirely accurate. Maximilian may correct me if I was wrong about that, but I think I did not misinterpret his remark.
You said, “But actually I’m pretty sure that he’s an anarchist”, as though that was contrary to my saying he indicated he was conservative. But that’s false. As just noted, anarchism is an extreme form of conservative.
I myself consider myself an extreme conservative, with libertarian and anarchist sympathies. So perhaps Maximilian and I have that in common.
You used the phrase “libertarian socialist”. That’s an oxymoron. I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean or what kind of political philosophy it’s supposed to refer to. I’ve certainly never heard the phrase before.
You said I “wish to make leftist=liberal”. Max, this is not my “wish”. It’s just the way it is. That’s the traditional accepted definition of the term, as well as fitting with its standard usage in today’s mainstream. Why should we reject the standard usage for your own private usage? As I said, that’s just not reasonable.
You said, “I suspect you’d likewise exclude many imperialist “conservatives” from your label of “conservatism,” which departs from “standard” usage.”
You’re confusing what I meant by “standard”. By that, I meant the classical, traditional definition. Not the meaningless terms they’ve come to be used as in the mainstream discourse today (e.g. “neoconservatives”). I think that misunderstanding underlies this entire reply of yours. Again, all the more reason to accept the classical definitions as a starting point.
I think that’s perfectly reasonable. If we can’t agree to that, I think I’ll have to withdraw myself from this discussion, as it can go nowhere unless we establish definitions first. A dictionary definition will suffice. That’s a perfectly reasonable place to start.
Again, the problem–which I was hesitant to outline above–is that your remarks are precisely representative of the mainstream ignorance of radical leftism, its heritage, its traditions, its history, its ideology, etc.
Take your request for “the dictionary,” a maneuver I wouldn’t normally resort to. It gives us Leftist, or “of, pertaining to, characteristic of, or advocated by the political Left.” Leftism is “The ideology of the political left.”
So it presumably falls to leftists to define and debate this ideology as well as define their allies and of course themselves. I am most surely not a party of one–hence, the query, “Why should we reject the standard usage for your own private usage?” seems close to hostile. The usage I am advocating is the classical usage and is in fact the usage used across the left, a point I suggested above. The “left,” which is not the Democratic party nor Howard Dean, does not seek the same goals as liberals nor does it have the same ideology. As David Graeber writes regarding the “anti-globalization movement,” also called the “social-justice movement,” in France called the “alter-globalization movement,”
As an anthropologist and active participant—particularly in the more radical, direct-action end of the movement—I may be able to clear up some common points of misunderstanding; but the news may not be gratefully received. Much of the hesitation, I suspect, lies in the reluctance of those who have long fancied themselves radicals of some sort to come to terms with the fact that they are really liberals: interested in expanding individual freedoms and pursuing social justice, but not in ways that would seriously challenge the existence of reigning institutions like capital or state. And even many of those who would like to see revolutionary change might not feel entirely happy about having to accept that most of the creative energy for radical politics is now coming from anarchism—a tradition that they have hitherto mostly dismissed—and that taking this movement seriously will necessarily also mean a respectful engagement with it.
“You said I “wish to make leftist=liberal”. Max, this is not my “wish”. It’s just the way it is. That’s the traditional accepted definition of the term, as well as fitting with its standard usage in today’s mainstream.”
But three paragraphs earlier the terms were “virtually meaningless.” So which one is it: the mainstream calls liberals leftists, but leftists don’t accept that liberals are leftists–leftists in fact have very systematic ideas about society, class, etc. that are virtually unknown to many who identify as liberals. Furthermore the definitions I’m using are essentially the “classical” ones.
Leftists, as I suggested above, can be socialist anarchists, or libertarian Marxists,
or libertarian socialists, or anarcho-syndicalists; Makhnoists, council communists, radicals, some Greens. But leftists don’t accept that liberals=leftists.
“You used the phrase “libertarian socialist”. That’s an oxymoron. I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean or what kind of political philosophy it’s supposed to refer to. I’ve certainly never heard the phrase before.”
As for “libertarian socialism,” it brings up 44,000 Google hits, hardly unknown. In Spanish, 121,000 hits; Portuguese, 200,000 hits; French, 230,000. This may in fact point to the source of your confusion: the distinctions I’m drawing are extremely clear in European political discourse, less so here.
At the word “oxymoron” I seriously should’ve stopped reading. It’s unsheathed hostility, since, well, I’m not in the business of scribbling out oxymorons. It refers precisely to the left-wing branch of socialism, e.g. democratic socialism, which was actually the mainstream in Europe until the Bolshevik Revolution, at which point things changed to some extent, setting the stage for an 80-year decline in the Western left. Libertarian socialism encompasses anarchism, “classically.” You see what trouble we get into with these bald assertions of “classical” vs “un-classical”?
You want “classical” usage, but are quite insistent that conservatism in fact is what encompasses anarchism. Again, this is correct only if you stipulate that by anarchism, which has a very, very long–“classical,” if you like–history, you mean “anarcho-capitalism,” a fairly recent American deviation from the term’s “classical” usage. So you are in fact being discourteous, because you demand that your definitions, the “classical” ones, are the ones we use, although it’s plenty clear that the definitions I’m using are in more “classical” than the ones you’re using–it’s just that Kropotkin, Proudhon, Bakunin, Malatesta, de Santillan, Durruti, et al aren’t on your reading list, nor Avrich’s histories of the anarchist movement (again used interchangeably with libertarian socialism in many circles).
See, you have a very specific understanding: that socialists are basically extremist liberals, of sort, who want a massively powerful state. So socialists and liberals are on a kind of continuum, connected to the degree of state power they envision. Socialism has a history before 1917. If you don’t wish to engage with it, and want instead to talk about “oxymorons,” like those silly Spanish folk who made a go of libertarian socialism in 1936 (it’s unfortunate that they didn’t realize that they were attempting to create a society based on an “oxymoron”) your privilege.
Jeremy R. Hammond
“Conservatism” — a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change ; specifically : such a philosophy calling for lower taxes, limited government regulation of business and investing, a strong national defense, and individual financial responsibility for personal needs (as retirement income or health-care coverage)
“Liberalism” — : a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties ; specifically : such a philosophy that considers government as a crucial instrument for amelioration of social inequities (as those involving race, gender, or class)
By “classical”, I mean dictionary definitions. Really, Max, I see no sense in rejecting the dictionary definitions of the terms. It really is a reasonable place to start.
According to the dictionary definitions, “Socialism” is a liberal political ideology and “Libertarianism” is a conservative political ideology. Hence “Libertarian Socialism” is an oxymoron. Simple logic.
This is precisely why I say rejection of the classical meanings of the words only leads to problems and confusion. Ergo my suggestion that we adopt this usage as a starting point. Again, I think this is reasonable and you’ve failed to convince me that this its unreasonable of me to “demand” that we use these words to mean what the dictionary says they mean, at least as a starting point.
I reject your assertion that my suggestion that we use these traditional definitions is demonstrative of my “ignorance”.
I also reject your assertion that I’ve been in any way “hostile”. I’ve not said anything so hostile as your remark that you “should’ve stopped reading” because I pointed out the fact that according to the dictionary definitions, “libertarian socialism” is an oxymoron. You’re the only one being hostile here, and if you can’t keep our disagreement from becoming personal, that’s another reason for me to withdraw from the conversation. I may not agree with you, but I’ve shown you now similar discourtesy or disrespect as to say I shouldn’t bother reading what you have to say.
Actually, I’m done. I can see this is going nowhere. I’ve been making a considerable effort, but I don’t have time for this kind of debate. Peace, all.
Come on gentlemen, let’s not get angry, personal, or irate. This discussion was a very productive one.
My fingers have gone over this keyboard 5 or 6 times in an effort to say this in a way that causes no offense, but what am I to make of a comment that erases or dismisses as an “oxymoron” the entire history of libertarian socialism because it’s not mentioned on dictionary.com? That’s not thought or thoughtfulness that merits a response–it’s a symptom of a long-standing lacuna in American political thought–perhaps even one that could be characterized as ignorant–that deserves analytical diagnosis.
Finding out what "libertarian socialism" means doesn't take a great deal longer than simply typing out the word "oxymoron." Now, is it fair to say this lacuna effectively erases "libertarian socialism" from history and discourse, because it cannot imagine it, and because it is terrified of what it could mean? Noam Chomsky repeatedly writes of right-libertarians' [which includes some conservatives, I'd suppose] commitment to rational discourse, and seriousness. I agree. But he wheels on them for their ignorance of the moral consequences of their views. I agree. Now, if such views can't be defended against the (far more serious) ideology or philosophy of "anarchism," or "libertarian socialism," is it not in turn far easier to pretend that it doesn't exist? Serious, if rhetorical, questions, but the urge to take the high-ground and demand dictionary definitions of complex and contested political vocabulary that some of us have seriously studied is hostile, even if that hostility is couched in a pragmatic folksy tone that one would have to be saint not to respond irately to.
(I almost lost your comment, which for inexplicable reasons was placed in the spam queue. Once that happens, it happens again and again, so don’t be surprised if your comments are slow to appear, I will find them.)
I agree that the dictionary definitions can often be useless, or barely a little more than useless. As an illustration you even provided one definition from a dictionary that was entirely circular, defining nothing about “leftist” thinking other than it is what belongs to leftists. Gee, thanks! I am not even certain that dictionary definitions are representative of what is commonly understood — first, because I have seen far too much evidence in writing that many do not consult dictionaries even on more basic terms, ignorance of which is inexcusable, and secondly because I do not believe that dictionary writers launch wide-scale sociological surveys to determine what people think words mean.
Anyway, leaving that aside for now, tell me what you think about this:
The debate between left and right here has been sometimes foggy, sometimes brilliantly sharp, but I wonder if these terms serve us any more. As far as I see (my vision is impaired, incidentally) it would be more useful if we specified where authors are aligned according to a series of key issues or axes. For example:
* foreign intervention
Others could add to the list. Thus, instead of identifying an author as “left” or “right”, we could be more specific but perhaps also “risk” producing wordier statements (which knocks us out of the Twitter zone, but who cares).
Yes. There is a website devoted to this–political compass. I tend to have trouble answering its questions though. For example: “Should the state have a greater role in the economy? How important is that to you on a scale of 1 to 5?” is one sample question, not easily answerable.
I think the economy needs planning but would prefer that the state not be the responsible agent; rather, voluntary planning councils, democratically elected, would offer plans for the larger population to vote on. [Actually, the notion that the “economy” needs “planning” I don’t accept either. An economy is a plan].
But would I prefer that a foundering steel company be sold to the highest bidder in a competitive auction, or be nationalized? I’d prefer nationalization, but what I’d really prefer is for it to be expropriated and run by its workers with the managerial class eliminated. The political compass hardly gets at conjunctural questions–e.g., to again invoke Chomsky, what to do if the choice is between the state or external predators, the private corporations? It does serve nonetheless as a rough guide.
[I go bottom-left; left-libertarian].
I do still think the terms “left” and “right” serve us for the simple reason that they’re enmeshed in popular discourse to such an extent that a political/mobilizing/educational effort can not simply dispense with them. They’re discursively hegemonic, even if there is much disagreement on what they mean, and they can’t accommodate many positions. The question is not if it’d be useful to discard them, and replace them with a more social-scientific taxonomy–it would. But I can’t imagine doing so.
I actually think the political compass, in rough approximation, answers your questions decently well, although imperfectly.
To analyze the terms you propose sequentially:
(a) Gore Vidal is fond of noting that every president from the early 70s on through Bush II won by running against the state, rhetorically–there is tremendous anger against the state, although not against, for example, social security, which is supported overwhelmingly in polling. Worth wondering about: the state means taxes, imprisonment, non-sense regulations, corruption, subsidies, etc. But actually what the state is is a giant insurance company with a sideline in aggressive warfare and economic planning. Strange.
(b) I think you’d find enormous percentages opposing corporatism;
(c) likewise, these days, capitalism;
(d) and (e) may need to be collapsed.
(f) too, perhaps; isn’t an oligarchy a vanguard or elite with power?
But you’re correct in noting that these are the lines upon which a serious and substantive grid should be constructed.
There’s a separate question, too: what are the deeper philosophical and theoretical choices that underlie these choices? Another annoying rhetorical question, although one that I’m happy to supply the answer to, but not right this minute.
Jeremy R. Hammond
Max, you’re demonstrating very well the importance of Maximilian’s original question about what people mean by these terms, and the uselessness of trying to have a discussion without first agreeing to a basic framework. You’re way ahead of me, here, man. I’m still trying to just agree on a definition of the basics, “conservative” and “liberal”. If we can’t agree on that, how can we discuss “libertarian socialism” or any wide range of other ideologies? I was merely observing that this term is an oxymoron if we begin with the definitions I offered. That’s a simple observation you’re reading way too much into.
I merely suggested a logical starting point to reassess the political discourse as a means of answering the question originally posed. I don’t know about where you live, but the definition I originally gave for “conservative” and “liberal” not only closely match the dictionary definition, but are well accepted and understood in American discourse. It seems to me, therefore, a perfectly reasonable place to start.
You seem to think it’s too simplistic. Well, that’s the whole point. We need to start somewhere simple and build from there.
As an example, people always call be “left” or “liberal”. It’s because they equate “anti-war” or “anti-empire”, etc., with the American “left”, which is a departure from what it actually means to be a “liberal”. It’s a lack of understanding about the true meanings of the words that leads to such a level of confusion as to make the words practically meaningless. I’m simply trying to boil the terms down to their actual meanings and get rid of the fluff, simply as a starting point. I’m simply trying to make the words meaningful again by recognizing for them a short, concise meaning.
We haven’t finished laying the foundation yet, Max, and you’re wanting to start shingling the roof. But if you disagree so strongly with the definitions I proposed, please, by all means, offer us you own concise meanings for the terms. That would be more productive than insulting my intelligence.
This is an excellent discussion, full of productive confusion (I am not suggesting either of you is confused, but rather that we are rediscovering just how ambiguous, sometimes amorphous, and overlapping some ideologies and concepts can be). I in effect missed most of the discussion as it was happening, and I think the cancellation of comment moderation assisted the flow of discussion (I get some porn spam that makes its way through, by using only one link, and some “real” comments laced with obscenity and even threats).
Max was right that I would not identify myself as a “conservative” although I am the first to admit that on some issues we will be in agreement. Jeremy singled out one. I will agree with Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan on some key issues, and on others react with a big, “Whoa, what did he just say?!”
There are different ways of aligning and disconnecting each of these positions. Immanuel Wallerstein lines them all up together: the dominant ideologies of the modern world-system are structured on a liberal body, with a fascist arm on one side, and a socialist arm on the other. One of the things that they all share in common is affinity, or resignation, or accommodation to the presence of a state, and of a role for the state. He also speaks of anti-systemic movements, and depending on the historical period in question it turns out that some might not be all that anti-systemic after all, and I find the word is not too helpful (in the classroom he has also applied the term to right wing survivalist militias in the U.S., and Timothy McVeigh types).
For me a real anti-systemism would have to reject or drastically minimize the state, and inequality. For me personally, the absolutely most important goal is for people to have a much greater say over their lives, to represent themselves, and that’s why I argue that “liberal democracy” is nowhere near democratic enough — when people come to ask me to vote for them, I almost get into a rage and I asked one recently, “What makes you think I cannot speak for myself? Who said I ever agreed to surrender my power to you?” My preferred institutions are the community (yes, it needs serious definitional labour) and the individual (and in the latter case, I am once again in agreement with some “conservatives” as Jeremy describes them). I can’t deny that individuality matters very much for me, even if individualism as commonly constructed is something I find repugnant.
By the way Jeremy, when you speak of standard, commonly accepted, and orthodox associations of “liberal” with “left,” I must insist that this is largely an American phenomenon, and it stems from the fact that American politics have historically been primarily tilted to the right, where even much of the American left would be considered merely “liberal” elsewhere. I recall — not the name — an American senator speaking of the Canadian political spectrum back in the 1980s, saying something along these lines: “Your Conservatives are like our Democrats; your Liberals are like socialists; and your supposedly socialist New Democrats are communists.” (That has changed substantially since then, and our spectrum is now much more aligned with the American one. But we are the country where the media used to casually speak of “Red Tories”.) To put it simply, I really only hear of liberal and left being joined in narratives that tend to mostly come out of the U.S.
In this sense, I think Max’s constructs are much more in line with the broader, established academic and activist literature in political theory.
Jeremy R. Hammond
Yes, I can obviously only speak from an American perspective. What I have said holds true in American discourse. If this doesn’t hold true elsewhere, could a conservative therefore also be a leftist? This is an oxymoron in American political discourse.
Yes, in fact in terms of the whole political spectrum, conservative (in terms of the US) politics would be considered to the left. “Right” politics in this sense would be to the left of the spectrum, and far left would be…quite left. But the terms aren’t really used in that context anymore.
I don’t think that US politics deals much in oxymorons. We tend more towards tautologies. I haven’t read the full discussion here yet, though I want to post more I want to read what’s here first.
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